DENHAM SPRINGS — A bid to remove the city’s police chief and fire chief from the civil service system failed on a split vote of the City Council on Tuesday night, after representatives of both services said the move would allow politics to influence public safety.
Mayor Gerard Landry, who last month placed Police Chief Scott Jones and Capt. Steve Kistler on paid leave pending an investigation into the handling of a domestic violence call involving City Councilman Chris Davis, said he backed the proposal as a way of running the city more like a business.
“I have 10 or 11 department heads, and I see no reason why two of them should be treated differently than the rest,” Landry said.
The resolution would have urged state Sen. Dale Erdey and Rep. J. Rogers Pope “to author and/or support legislation” during the current session to specifically exempt Denham Springs’ top public safety officials from the state’s civil service system.
Council members Lori Lamm-Williams and Robert Poole supported the measure. Councilmen Rene Delahoussaye, Davis and Jeff Wesley, who previously served as the city’s police chief, opposed it.
The chiefs would be allowed to politick for or against public officials and might be pressured to selectively enforce the laws or show favoritism within the departments, Gillespie said.
“Under the current proposal, 100 percent of everything will lie vested with the mayor, as the appointing authority,” Gillespie said. “He will say the chiefs will serve at his pleasure, and he can remove them, according to what’s proposed, for any reason he has, and there would be no checks and balances for those chiefs. It’s just not the right thing to do.”
Chad Major, president of the Professional Fire Fighters Association of Louisiana, said he would not try to tell the mayor how to run a grocery business, but there is a lot the mayor may not quite understand about civil service.
“When the civil service was implemented, it was shortly after the Huey P. Long era,” Major said. “(With) the political spoils that were going on at the time, you had so much turnover in public safety that it became non-public safety. It was a threat to the public.”
Major said the proposal, if adopted by the council and approved at the Legislature, would make Denham Springs the first city in the state where a classified fire chief was removed from the civil service.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘Why would that be?’ Because nobody else has a problem,” Major said, adding that the civil service system has tools in place for removing a “bad chief.”
Major said the city would have trouble finding new chiefs from in-state, unless the candidate had already reached retirement status and could financially survive being fired at will by the mayor.
Lamm-Williams, who offered the motion for the resolution, said she supported the proposal because “it’s time to move in a different direction and provide accountability.”
Asked whether the civil service system provides accountability, Lamm-Williams said, “Not really. Or I guess I should say, this would provide more.”
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